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After 500 wins, numerous awards and a bout with cancer
Debbie Ryan looms as a giant in

Women’s Basketball

By Elizabeth Kiem

Debbie Ryan stands just southwest of center court, hands on hips, the smallest person in University Hall. She stands very still, hardly moving from the “V” on the floor during 11 minutes of fast-paced drills. Only her eyes, darting over her players, and her voice, a constant exhortation, are in motion. Her physical stillness commands attention.

Coach Ryan
Courtesy of Athletic Media Relations Office
Coach Ryan got her 300th win on March 23, 1991, when Virginia beat Lamar at Austin, Texas, 85-70.

Ryan has held that spot near center court for 25 years, molding Virginia women’s basketball teams, building them into a formidable program and the flagship of the University’s women’s athletic curriculum. A pioneer of female college ball, Ryan’s credentials, awards and achievements firmly ensconce her in an elite group of coaches. Selected Atlantic Coast Conference Coach of the Year seven times since 1987, her services have been sought by many schools over the years. But Ryan has stayed put.

“There were times when I was courted to go elsewhere,” Ryan concedes. “I went a couple places to look to see what other people had so I could make it better here. And every time I went out, I came back feeling like I know I can do it here. I always felt strongly about this University and its mission and the special place that I think Charlottesville is to live.”

A native of Titusville, N.J., Ryan graduated from Ursinus (Pa.) College in 1975. She came to U.Va. to earn a master’s in physical education and take a position as assistant coach for the women’s basketball and field hockey teams under then-athletics director Gene Corrigan. Corrigan, Ryan’s uncle, went to the University president to make the case for hiring a 24-year-old coach when the top position opened two years later.

Debbie Ryan
Archival photo/Landon Nordeman
Coach Ryan gets a hand — and a lift — from players DeMya Walker, left, and Lisa Hosac after her 500th victory Feb. 21, 1999, an 83-65 triumph over Florida State at University Hall. Ryan, then in her 22nd year at U.Va., was the 13th coach in NCAA Division I history with at least 500 wins, and only the sixth to earn them all at one school.

“It was unusual at the time, but it wasn’t super unusual because everything was growing so quickly,” Ryan recalls. “When I took the job it wasn’t that big of a deal because there wasn’t any money in women’s basketball, and not a lot of money in my salary.”

Virginia was a late bloomer when it came to giving women’s sports the attention and resources needed to turn out winners, says Ryan. While rivals such as Maryland, ODU and N.C. State were already offering scholarships to female athletes in the late ’70s, Ryan’s fledgling program awarded no scholarships and operated on a minimal budget. Sharing a locker-room lined with urinals with five other teams, the basketball players relied on personal cars and vans to get to away games, usually driving back the same night. The Cavaliers won only eight of their 25 games in the 1977-78 season. It was Ryan’s first — and only — losing year.

Ryan turned the team around in her second season. Her third team set or matched 11 team records and received the program’s first postseason tournament invitation.

As the victories and records piled up, the University responded with incentives. From 1980 to 1990 the program’s budget and Ryan’s salary nearly tripled. But gender equity at University Hall was still far on the horizon, Ryan says.

Ryan and Carpenter
Debbie Ryan performed with Grammy award-winning singer and songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter in Old Cabell Hall last May. The concert was a benefit for U.Va.’s Cancer Center where Ryan underwent surgery and follow-up treatment for pancreatic cancer.

“There were a lot of battles, a lot of skirmishes along the way. You had to fight and stand up for things. You had to push for things that we thought we should have, primarily because men were playing the exact same game and had those things and you wanted to be sure your athletes had the things they needed to succeed.”

Ryan credits former athletic administrator James West for prioritizing the women’s game and “taking it under his wing.”

“He found a way to do things that a lot of other schools couldn’t do,” she says.
West’s ingenuity was essentially a practice of letting the women’s team nip into the men’s budget for travel and uniforms. Now retired, West justifies the effort, saying, “success breeds options. Everything I did was approved by Gene Corrigan, because the fans were coming.”

In 1986, one of West’s inspirations ran afoul of the fire marshals when the athletic department made a school-wide drive to break an all-time women’s college basketball attendance record offering free hot dogs as an incentive. The record was broken, but not before overselling University Hall and crowding the aisles and fire exits. “And they were still lined up down to Emmet Street,” he chuckles.

Today, the women’s team draws five times more fans than any men’s game did back in the first 10 years of U-Hall.

In 1992, Ryan was awarded a 25 percent pay raise to achieve salary equity with men’s basketball coach Jeff Jones. Only one other Division I coach enjoyed such parity at the time.

As administrators were working to fatten the program’s budget, sports fans and commentators were applauding Ryan and her peers for changing the face of the sport. On the eve of her 400th career victory, Richmond Times-Dispatch sports writer Vic Dorr Jr. declared, “No other coach — man or woman, past or present — has produced success of this sort while working at a state Division I school.” Ryan had joined the ranks of her male mentors, Terry Holland and Dean Smith, giving a whole new generation of young women athletes a real role model.

• Sun., Feb. 17
U.Va. vs. Maryland at U-Hall.
1 p.m.

• Thurs., Feb. 21
U.Va. vs. North Carolina at U-Hall. 7:30 p.m.

• Sun., Feb. 24
U.Va. vs. Florida State at Tallahassee. 2 p.m.

• Fri.-Mon., March 1-4.
ACC Tournament. Greensboro, N.C.

One of those young women was Valerie Ackerman, a four-year player with Virginia who is now president of the Women’s National Basketball Association. “[Coach Ryan’s] contribution to the sport has been nothing short of extraordinary, and I know I speak for all of the players when I say I’m incredibly proud to be associated with her and with her program,” she says.

Ryan sings the praises of her many former players who have gone on to play pro ball, but stresses that the real strength of U.Va.’s athletic program comes from its focus on academic excellence.

“I’m just as proud of the people who have gone on to have families or gone on to be successful in the professional world. We have an orthopedic surgeon, an oral surgeon … I have so many people who have done extraordinary things and I’m just as proud of them,” she says.

Ryan’s golden years came in the early ’90s. From 1989 to 1993, the Cavaliers won three ACC tournament championships and advanced to the NCAA Final Four three straight years. Virginia became the first ACC school to go undefeated during the regular season.

The peak years on the court were followed with more professional affirmation for Ryan. By 1999, she was celebrating her 500th career win and her seventh ACC Coach of the Year award.

Then another battle launched her back into the headlines – but there was much more at stake this time. In August 2000, Ryan confirmed that she had had a brush with cancer, and one of its deadliest varieties.

“My thought was, ‘Well, I’ve had a good life, I’ll see you all,’” says Ryan about her initial diagnosis. “I knew that pancreatic cancer is pancreatic cancer.”

The growth was small enough to be surgically removed. After six weeks of radiation and chemotherapy, Ryan was given a clean bill of health. Following doctors’ orders (as well as those of athletic director Terry Holland, a longtime friend and colleague), Ryan left recruiting to her assistants, but vowed not to miss a single practice. A year later, Ryan coached the U.S. team to a gold medal in the World University Games in Beijing. Beating tremendous odds to become a survivor of pancreatic cancer, she says, was a gift.

“It’s turned out to be a very positive thing in my life, because I’ve become a much better person,” says Ryan, who credits the late state Sen. Emily Couric for encouraging her to speak out about her cancer. “I’ve learned to reach out to other people in this same position, and to families who have loved ones in this position. It’s been a friend to me because I think that as much as an enemy it is, it’s made me a better person, a better coach and a better mentor.”

As one of four upperclassmen on this year’s team, senior Telisha Quarles has seen the transformation in her coach. After a rough start in her first season, she says her relationship with Ryan is now one of the most important facets of her game and college life. “I talk to her about a lot of personal things. She’s not just my coach, she’s one of my best friends.”

Ryan’s players, coaches and fans agree that her amazing physical recovery is a reflection of her mental toughness. Her post-op return to court was greeted with whoops of relief, but underlying the emotional outpouring was a sense of inevitability — as if there was never really any question of who would win in this particular showdown. At the time, senior captain Dean’na Mitchelson told USA Today, “She’s so strong-willed. She won’t bow down to anything. I don’t care if you’re cancer or Godzilla.”

Ryan is humbler. She says there’s truth in her reputation as a tough and confident adversary, but cancer, she says, is a whole different ball game.

“You really are at a crossroads. There’s no question that there are things associated with it that you’ve never experienced before. Unless you’re a cancer survivor, you’ll never understand it.

“The biggest thing about cancer is that there’s a lot of fear. And I guess when you’ve been in sports and faced critics, you learn to deal with it a little bit better — you’re better prepared. But also because I could step out and help other people took my mind off it a lot.”

Together with Couric, diagnosed with pancreatic cancer about the same time as Ryan and who succumbed to the disease in October, Ryan hosted a sold-out concert by Mary Chapin Carpenter to raise over $100,000 for the U.Va. Cancer Center. She is also involved in fund-raising activities for the student-run advocacy group, FORCE (Fighting, Overcoming, and Responding to Cancer Everywhere).
Ryan has a lot on her plate – a young team in need of guidance, a calendar of advocacy events, and this silver anniversary jubilee on Feb. 15-17 — but none of this distracts her from the bigger picture.

“I don’t really reflect a lot, but when you run into a life-altering situation like cancer, you do have a tendency to really go through how much you’re blessed and how much you’ve been given throughout the years. I’ve just been very proud to have been a small part of the great history of the University of Virginia. It’s just one of my finest moments, every minute that I’ve been here. I’m extremely proud to have been a part of it.”

This softer, gentler Ryan might exude satisfaction in her reflective moments, but there’s no doubt that her quest for an elusive NCAA championship continues. Ever since she came up short three years in a row, Ryan has had her eye on the title. This year’s team has struggled a little, slipping to the lower half of the ACC. But Ryan says that the youth of the team bodes well for next season.

“Next year we’re going to be very strong. We have a very young team now that’s gaining a lot of experience and getting playing time. And now that I’m a little wiser about these things, it will be a little bit easier for me in terms of orchestrating it. But no doubt, next year we’re going to be a fantastic team.”

As fantastic as any team in her illustrious 25-year career?

“Could be,” she says with a grin, “Could be.”


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